Somewhere I sympathized with Daniel’s need to feel superior and in control of others. We bother exercised little control over our own lives as children. Neither one of us really took social initiative. We weren’t popular at school, and why would we be. We were both overweight, nerdy, acne riddled, adolescents. It just so happened that Daniel’s mom had more disposable income, and Daniel had cooler gadgets than I did. Daniel had the cooler toys, so Daniel got to be in charge, and I got to play his video games. We both had a role to play.
Robert was the friend I invited over when I wanted to feel superior. Robert’s home life was a mess. Robert’s father was an out of work contract foreman with a bad temper and an addiction to prescription pills. He was not fond of children, even his own. Andrew was Robert’s brother. He was a few years older than us, and I thought that he was the coolest. He could drive, and that made him the coolest.
I didn’t stay at Robert’s house much. Andrew and Bob (Robert Senior) were always at each other’s throats. Bob would call the entire family upstairs for meetings when I was there. I wasn’t allowed to leave the basement. I would hear shouting and thrashing around upstairs. I wouldn’t see Bob or Andrew for the rest of the night, and Robert would eventually return, but he was quiet and disturbed.
Robert basically lived at my house. That arrangement worked better for him.
Eventually Daniel and Robert met, but they didn’t hit exactly hit it off. The first night that they both slept over at my house, they ended up getting into a fight. Daniel outweighed Robert by fifty pounds, but Robert was accustomed to violence.
Robert lived a different life than Daniel and I. He spent most of his time as a child outdoors. His parents owned sizable acreage outside of town. Their house sat down in the woods and wasn’t visible from the road. The house’s foundation sits cut into the side of a hill, and the entire property slopes down to a creek. That creek is where Robert and I played anytime I visited his house. We caught frogs, skipped rocks, and climbed trees. For me it was an interesting diversion from watching cartoons and playing video games, but for Robert it was a place where he escaped the stresses of home.
I can’t remember why they ended up arguing, but Robert punched Daniel, and Daniel immediately started bawling. They never became friends, but they eventually learned to tolerate each other.
There’s not much to do in Black Hollow, West Virginia. The town has a pervasive hopelessness. The town’s main industry is hospitality. The sand mine and the hospital are major employers, but the mine has automated, and the hospital has to ship in qualified employees.
In high school, the ambition of any successful student is leaving town.
“I can’t wait to get out of this shit hole.”
“I’m leaving for college and never coming back.”
“As soon as I graduate, I’m going into the military.”
“I’m saving my money, and I’m moving to Maryland.”
But inertia is hard to overcome. Those grand plans get dashed against economic reality. The comfort of familiarity overcomes possibility, and all but the most motivated remain.
I see them working the same jobs that they had in high school, making the same inflation-adjusted wage. It’s easy to see the stagnation and desperation. Every day is the same, and the houses down the block crumble slowly into the ground. Old multi-story houses with semi-rotten ornate moulding stand as symbols of better times.
Geography contributes to the isolation and lack of opportunity. The town is nestled in a mountain valley, thirty miles from the nearest interstate. There’s no infrastructure, no highway, no hardware store, no internet, and no educated workers.
The town’s only restaurant is McDonald’s. There are half a dozen thrift stores sprinkled around rotting commercial properties and private residences. There’s a gas station that doubles as a grocery. Everyone who makes a living wage commutes.
Retired and disabled old men still sit in the gas station diner and sip coffee for hours before dawn every day. They talk about the state of the town and the country. They pass judgement on the young men walking across the parking lot. Their cloudy and bloodshot eyes see everything.
They shake their heads dismissively.
“These kids today just don’t want to work.”
Steve Parker moved to town when we were just beginning to drive. He was taller than the rest of us, physically talented, popular. He lived a short hike through the woods from Daniel’s house on Evergreen Ridge. I can’t remember how we started hanging out with him. It might have been proximity; it might have been that he was fucked up like the rest of us. It might have been that he was drawn to our group of outcasts and misfits for reasons that none of us were equipped to understand at the time.
Steve was a jock. The girls loved him, and he slept with a lot of them. The rest of us couldn’t get even get a girl to notice our existence. It sounds so stereotypical: the handsome stranger moves into town and the girls fawn all over him, but that’s how it happened. There’s a reason stereotypes become so recognizable.
Daniel and I lived through Steve. He gave us a glimpse at what life would be like if we were physical and sexual specimens. His life wasn’t a fairy tale. Steve’s younger sister Jen was a complete nightmare. She had the intellectual capacity of a wet sponge and even less of an ability to be responsible. Both of them had horrible attendance at school. Steve missed more than one hundred days in two academic years. I have no idea how he graduated. The school must have wanted rid of him.
Most of Steve’s family dysfunction was rooted in the death of his father. The details were never shared in full, but what I gathered was that Gordon Parker died because of exposure to formaldehyde. He was a country mortician and the county coroner. He had breathed enough embalming fluid to put him in need of his own services. When he died, he left a wife and two kids.
Steve’s mom, Liz was a lunatic though. Liz was a half-time Mormon, who would bum cigarettes from her fifteen year old son but preach the gospel and abstinence from caffeine. She was a short Germanic woman with broad shoulders and a screeching voice could rattle the windows.
She was a realtor, and her income was uneven. Large commission checks would arrive, and she would shower everyone with money, but she never saved anything. It was feast or famine at her house, and Liz vacillated between jubilation and misery depending on the arrival of her last commission. She had social security checks for the sparse times, but they weren’t enough.
Steve’s sister inherited the crazy. She was the attractive new girl at school, and she used her social position to her full advantage. She dated her way through all of Steve’s friends. I even went on a date with her. I didn’t even finish the movie before I realized that she wasn’t worth the trouble.
She ended up pregnant, and swollen past the norms of pregnancy weight. She ate her depression and fear.
The baby’s father was Greg. He was a well known pill user. He ended up in jail a little after the baby was born. I thought it a funny twist work of cosmic justice that Greg got her pregnant. Of all the people who had slept with Steve’s sister, Greg was the least able to care for a child.